Being the youngest sibling from a musical family, I had the great good fortune to hear music-making at home every day when young. I've often pondered on which pieces from those days continue to influence me today. Last year I consciously returned to one of them … the second movement from Handel's Suite in G major HWV441 … as the starting point for the 9th set of my Songs without Words project which is dedicated to my eldest sister, whom I remember playing the piece. (Click on the link HERE to see this set of piano pieces.) To the best of my knowledge, I am yet to lean on early memories of my mother's party piece at the piano - Leander Fisher's 'The Robin's Return' - but that's not to say it hasn't had its subconscious influence… One of my stronger childhood musical memories is of another sister and my brother playing Henry Geehl's piano duet arrangements of three movements from the Bach cantatas. Whilst 'Jesu, Joy of man's desiring' (as it is more usually known) may be the best known of these, my memories are haunted by the second: 'Sheep may safely graze' (Schafe können sicher weiden'). Looking back, I think this is where my appetite for rich harmonic progression was born. Constructed in a ternary sandwich form, the opening section conveys a calm pastoral scene in Bb major, underlined by the tonic pedal at the start of the introduction. The first phrase of the chorale melody gently takes us to the sunshine of the dominant, and the next phrase briefly visits the woolly warmth of the subdominant; but for these passing inflections, however, the opening section is a reliably diatonic staple diet - almost like grass. It is the middle section where my nostalgic memories of harmonic adventure courtesy of my siblings lie. It is often true that we only know something by experience of its opposite. Safe-grazing is all very well for us sheep, but Bach 'shows' us a less placid, untroubled world in this passage. Almost immediately we are rounded up and taken into the darker world of the relative minor; but that does not suffice for Bach - two bars later he takes into the more sorrowful C minor. But this tonal route map is only a dry headline. The wonder is the harmonic mastery with which this journey is steered with all the cunning of the wisest of sheepdogs. As early as the second beat of the section (b.213) the we feel the gravitational pull of G minor with a chord of VIIb - the inevitable tonal destination is only confirmed a bar later. Thus apprenticed in the minor side, the subsequent route to C minor is wonderfully prolonged: its shadow is felt as early as b.224 but its confirmatory cadence is only reached at b.263. How is this achieved? Through assured use of subtle chord inversions: V7d, Ib, VIIb, Ib, V7b, Ic, IIb, V7d and Ib, each delaying the unequivocal perfect cadence. Complementing this harmonic mastery is a melodic contour that is magnificently expressive - mostly high in register, incorporating an expectant rising sequence (b.23-24) and having the widest leap of the piece so far: a swooning diminished 7th that - with Ab and B - can only belong to C minor. It is easy to think that momentum in music - a highly desirable quality in many instances - depends on rhythm: one only has to think of the driving rhythms on snare drum and xylophone (among other instruments) in the development section of the opening movement to Shostakovich's 5th Symphony with its insistent anapaest pattern (though, of course, Bach got there first in the opening movement of the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto!). However, harmony too can create momentum: Bach signposts the next harmonic or tonal destination and we are captured by the music's desire to move in that direction. To my mind, the best is yet to come. From C minor, after a ritornello passage, the middle section continues and carries the music to another minor key - D minor (relative of the dominant) and onwards back to G minor before, via descending sequence (to balance the earlier rising sequence) to close the middle section in F major, ready - through a dominant-tonic resolution - for the da capo return to Bb major. And here again, progression of harmony drives the music on, and the masterstroke is the sleight of hand in b.31 where we sense a brightening of the tonal weather as the E natural leads us into F major at b.321, but the return to major tonality (and safe grazing) is fleeting: by b.322 we sense an immediate coldness of D minor. The sheep are once more bleating. With a deft touch, Bach points the moment with an octave leap in the melody, quite literally a moment of heightened tension: The cantata from which this movement is taken, 'Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV208, was written by Bach for the 31st birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels on 23 Feburary 1713. Recording this extraordinary movement today in 2020's strange world of Coronavirus lockdown, linked by modern-day technology to a violinist 150 miles away in Liverpool, how fantastic it is that Johann Sebastian's sublime harmonic creativity of 307 years ago can speak to us of safe grazing set against a dark backdrop. And how grateful am I for those early musical experiences of hearing my siblings play such great music! Thank you.
Tag, music education
Among those teachers to whom I owe gratitude is the late Ken Naylor. His teaching career was largely at the Leys, Cambridge, where he taught for 27 years, but the autumn of his career was spent at Christ's Hospital where he was manager of the Arts Centre. This was a terrific boon to the Music Department: Ken was a superb additional organist to the community, but he was also a wonderful arranger. I understand that he provided the fledgling King's Singers with some of their early arrangements; it was the elaborate, many-voiced arrangement of 'Lullaby of Broadway' which became a favourite with our close harmony Male Voice Choir (a curiously named ensemble in - as it was then - an all boys school!). I was very fortunate to have Ken teaching me the History of Music when I was in Year 12 (or the 'Deputy Grecians' as we were known in C.H. lingo). It was only when life had moved on and I was into my career that I first came across Ken's wonderful tune 'Coe Fen' which he wrote to John Mason's hymn 'How shall I sing that majesty?'. Choosing Eb major and triple time is always a good start for a hymn tune, but Ken was on top form the day he wrote this tune: the way the highest note of each phrase creeps ever higher until the top Eb at the start of line 7 (after an exquisitely prolonged last note of line 6) is masterly, and there aren't many hymn tunes that start their second half on a half diminished 7th! The finest hymn singing I have ever heard was by Downside School at the memorial service for their Christ Hospital educated Director of Music, Chris Tambling: Coe Fen in truly monumental guise, and a wonderful tribute to a special man. Now that composing has become my own career, I was asked to work on a hymn for communal singing during a local church event. With this occasion and Coe Fen in mind, it seemed to me that the one thing that Ken Naylor's great hymn tune lacked was a thrilling descant. So I set to work. http://www.coefen.org/ It was only on completing my attempt and sharing it with other Coe Fen admirers that I discovered that Ken had written a descant to his tune. Had I known this, I would not have trodden upon such hallowed ground: it seems like disrespect, even at this distance down the years. I requested that the master's own descant be scanned and sent to me. At least there was some affirmation: like my descant, Ken had started his in bar 2, imitating the congregational tune one bar later at a higher pitch; but then, shock! I realised that Ken had committed one of those grave sins of good part-writing: on beats 2 and 3 he had his descant moving in parallel octaves with the bass line! Perplexed, and - if I'm being honest - a little smug, I shared this discovery with a musical colleague. A day later he returned to the topic and gently pointed out that in my descant beats 2 and 3 moved in parallel 5ths with the congregational tune. Time for a quick revision and a portion of humble pie… Download score here - How shall I sing that majesty
I recently composed a piece called The Elephant and the Mouse. The title appears in a specimen examination paper of ‘Briefs’ in the new A’ level specification from AQA, and my piece is intended as an example of how a candidate might go about the challenge. [soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/275736868" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /] It took me back to my early piano lessons with the wonderful Vera Crawford-Phillips. A typical piano lesson (as I remember it) would end with her saying ‘Now dear, I’m just going to write what you need to do in your practice book, and whilst I do that, why don’t you play me what an elephant sounds like’ and – as a happy 6 year old, gloriously losing myself in the moment, I would go thump, thump, thump in the bass, the connection between the slowly lumbering beasts I had only ever seen in Bristol Zoo and the sounds I was making being (to my mind) patently clear. When, next week, the challenge was to play like a mouse, my hands would stretch in the opposite direction and go scurrying around the upper keys. Children today typically spend far more time looking at a screen than I ever did (there was only grainy black and white television). It concerns me how an invitation to compose is met with an almost instantaneous desire to sit in front of a computer and have the focus of their brain dominated by the visual impact of the illuminated screen. The frame of the screen seems to imprison the reach of the imagination, and more often than not the only place to insert notes is on the stave (perhaps we need a NSPLL – a Notational Society for the Preservation of Leger Lines). It is as though they compose visually. Yet children in their creative play, be it outdoors or on the stairs, are just as imaginative as they ever were. I used to dream of playing cricket for England, flying to Mars with my teddy bears or constructing elaborate mazes. And my wonderful piano teacher took that imagination and encouraged me to respond to it with musical invention. Of course the elephants went thump, thump in the heavy tones of the bass whilst the mice scurried lightly around the tiny strings at the top of the piano, but she made my brain make that connection and be delighted (as only a 6-year old could be) in the results of my creativeness. So when I compose The Elephant and the Mouse today, little has changed. I now know that elephants can ‘trumpet’ – the ones in Bristol zoo never did that – so the trombone takes the elephant theme, but the bass still thumps in the cello, and the scurrying mouse is portrayed by the piccolo. Yes, I have more technical know-how these days, but that imagination is key, and I am so grateful that my piano teacher turned it on for me. I believe we should be doing far more to encourage today’s young children to be thinking in similarly imaginative ways, not because the results at GCSE composition will improve (though that would be welcome) but because it is such a vital skill to ‘think outside the box’ – the box of the computer screen. Oh, and we do not need to assess and measure the results with all the trappings of targets, assessments and statistics, we just need to encourage them to be imaginative. Who knows what then they might be able to imagine in whatever area they subsequently gain the technical know-how, musical or otherwise.